Wednesday, January 27, 2016

I Kid The Governor. Mostly.

My first real job was as a translator, which paid quite nicely. Now, I just do it for free, because I'm a good person like that.

From an excerpt of Governor Bruce Rauner’s State of the State address on education:

“The key to rising family incomes, more high paying jobs, and a better life for everyone in Illinois, is to have a high quality, fully-integrated education system from cradle to career, from early education, to K-12 public schools, to outstanding community colleges and universities, all the way to coordinated job training and technical training later in life.”

TRANSLATION: I can do basic math, probably because of my stellar suburban education. I plan on screwing you all your life.

“To drive that result, we are committed to eliminating wasteful bureaucracy, putting more money into our classrooms, freeing up our teachers to teach, and holding our schools truly accountable for results.”

TRANSLATION: I have to say some stuff about waste, I think new desks are nice, I plan to blame teachers and administrators just like everyone else has.

“We have ten long-term goals. This legislative session we will begin to: Work closely with President Cullerton to significantly increase state support for education, focusing our additional resources more on low income and rural school districts so we can provide high quality classrooms in every community, without taking money away from any other districts.”

TRANSLATION: I plan to blame Cullerton when things still suck and poor children are still neglected. People who golf on private courses or know how to use french presses will be unaffected. 

“Provide proper funding for early childhood education while setting rigorous benchmarks for program performance, so we can continue to be national leaders in this important work.” 

TRANSLATION: I plan to take credit for others’ work. “Proper” is an undefined term on purpose. 

“Give school districts more flexibility when it comes to bargaining, contracting, and bidding, to save taxpayers money, while enabling districts to pay higher teacher salaries.”

TRANSLATION: Friends, It’s “give the contract to my friends” day. Make that year. Make that four years.

“Empower our universities and community colleges to reduce their administrative costs, work rules, pension liabilities and unfunded mandates, and then offer additional financial support to those schools that show real progress in putting more resources in the classroom.”

 TRANSLATION: After you figure out how to make fewer low-paying administrative jobs take on more responsibility for work real people used to do, you’ll either suck and I’ll replace your failing functions with a private partnership to make my friends richer OR you won’t need additional financial support because you’ll already be saving money and getting the job done! Also, screw your pensions. Win-Win-Win!

 “Support more partnerships between high schools, community colleges, and local employers so that our young people who are not going to university, can receive the training to step into good paying careers beginning in their teenage years.”

 TRANSLATION: I'm totally into m
ore corporate-led curriculum-building so that our students can be the best and brightest worker bees ever, starting at a young, under-exposed age so they don’t know and won’t care about what they are missing, in an economy that works to make me and my friends richer.

 “Develop a comprehensive, consistent, objective student growth measure, not necessarily based on the PARCC system, so we can track our students’ progress in each grade towards college or career, holding our schools accountable for results while eliminating unnecessary testing and bureaucratic mandates.” 

TRANSLATION: More tests! Hopefully, ones that make me and my friends richer.

“Support programs that create more quality school choice options for low income children stuck in failing schools.”

TRANSLATION: Charter, anyone?

“Create new quality schools of choice for our disconnected youth as a way to get them back in school.”

 TRANSLATION: Alternative charter, anyone?

“Consolidate the majority of our councils and task forces under the P20 and Early Learning Councils, in order to decrease bureaucracy, increase high-quality outcomes for our learners, and improve the coordination of these working groups.”

TRANSLATION: The committee about the committee on committees will now be one committee. With a few sub-committees.

“Create a Cabinet on Children and Youth so we can better align our health and human services with our cradle to career education initiatives, in order to provide higher quality, fully integrated services for our young people.”

TRANSLATON: I’m hiring another one of my friends for a six-figure job.

 “This education agenda is bold and transformative. Change is difficult. But by working together, we can make it a reality. The people of Illinois deserve nothing less than the best education system in America.”

TRANSLATION: The people of Illinois are about to learn yet another lesson on representative governance. The lesson is: we don’t have it.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

I do.

I know this boy whose dad just died of a heart attack.

I think, "Is he safe?"

I surprise myself with how often this is the question in my mind.

I read this book on becoming happier.

It asks you to list the things that will make you happier.

I list "Feeling safe."

I ask myself, "Are you in danger?"

Yes, yes of course. I'm always in danger.

I talk to my mother about my father.

She says, "You don't understand."

I say, "I do, I do."

I do understand. My biological father wanted nothing to do with me. My adopted father tried for a time and then as if on a breeze, floated away. The rest and love faded too, aided by my own walk in the other direction.

So there I was.

Safe? There was always food, if that's the question.

I worry about the boy and being happier.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

I Can't Always Be Civil

Immediately upon hearing that Illinois state legislators were proposing the appointment of a board to manage Chicago Public Schools I thought of Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction.

When did we ask the state to step in with this kind of proposal? And since when are senators from Lemont and Western Springs so expert in the needs of Chicago Public Schools? I would sooner sign on to have Chicago run the schools on Mars, and my guess is we'd do a better job with Martians than Illinois legislators would do with our children.

Desperate times, desperate measures? No. I'm tired of hearing all the horsedoodle that's trafficked about the terrible state of our public schools in Chicago. You know what's terrible? The rhetoric. While the politicians are full of it, the schools are not. The schools are filled with children. Sure, some come to school with all kinds of troubles. But just as many if not more come to school highly ambitious and ready to learn, they come wanting to read and paint and play music and run around a schoolyard with their jackets wide open in winter. They come to school black and Asian and brown and white, from every faith and background. Everybody comes to school.

The parents? The parents are university-degreed, private-schooled, blue-collar, no-collar, Spanish-speaking, Arabic-speaking, bad-English-speaking, and all the rest. Attorneys send their kids to public school, doctors do, artists, bankers, grocery store clerks, postal workers, police officers, and pharmacists. We cook at home, we eat organic, we go to movies, we sit next to you on the train, we decorate our homes, we drive on the street, and shop at the mall.

There's nothing inherently different about public school children or public school parents, and just like Lemont and Western Springs parents, we are trying to lift up our children, to get them ready for the world.

That said, life in Chicago is a little different than life in Lemont, and the needs of our system cannot be left in the hands of folks who don't have any experience with or knowledge about a large urban school district. Moreover, the financial woes of the Chicago public school system while terrible and urgent are not for the state to swoop in and resolve, especially given the state's otherwise dismal record in managing its own finances. I point the state in the direction of its own universities, which are awash in corruption and financial mismanagement, and worse - currently running on fumes as the state's budget impasse threatens to make Illinois a state incapable of competing with others on the national stage because it cannot even manage to keep the lights on. Hand over the keys to our schools? Are you joking? No, sir.

Also this business of appointing the board that would run the Chicago Public Schools? Are you quite out of your collective minds? We've had well enough of appointed Boards, thank you. You can shove that idea right back where it came from, and take the 'lifeline' suggestion with it, up your smug, uninformed arses.

Even on our most dire days, I should like to point out, Chicago Public Schools educate an awful lot of people who go on to do some pretty remarkable things. In fact, students of our schools have built one of the biggest cities in the world, its world-class museums, transportation systems, libraries, some of the most well-regarded architecture ever built, natural preserves, public parks to rival any. The train you ride, the shoes you bought, the 911 operator who answers your call - chances are, every single day you trust a Chicago Public School graduate to help you with your most basic needs. And it's perfectly safe to do so. Why, then, do you allow the political blowhards to convince you that CPS is churning out only the destitute and depraved? It's an absolute lie!

We definitely need to work out our financial troubles, but we don't need to be managed by the state in order to do that.

Some suburban folks are wont to say that the rest of the state is tired of taking care of Chicago, such that if Chicago wants help from the state we need to submit to the will of the collective. Alrighty then. Using that logic, Chicago should get to tell the rest of the state how to run things in the arenas where we are more powerful, and where the suburbs take advantage of us. We have better public transportation systems so we'll head down to Big Rock and have CTA implement a bus system there. Cool? We have better museums, so we'll just trot over to Peoria and start bossing some folks around downtown on the improvement of their cultural offerings. Our critical care units are pretty badass, too, so we're going to be sending some of our folks from the Cook County Hospital system to direct hospital services in Bartlett. Ironically, our selective enrollment schools seem to be hot-ticket items for some suburban families. Can we come run your high school in Wilmette? Oh, and jobs? We don't want any suburbanites taking our jobs and then leaving to pay property taxes outside the city anymore so y'all can just figure out that employment thing in your own hometown. Are we good here?

Feel a little indignant and provoked? Me too. It's hard to remain civil.

And in case you don't care about what the city offers and you still feel over-burdened by your suburban share of the costs, I'd like to point out that we in the city are actually carrying your public school teachers. City Pays Suburban Teacher Pensions So shop your indignation elsewhere, we're not buying.

Our friends in the legislature can call it what they want. With respect, the answer is "No."

Monday, January 18, 2016

Accept Failure

It's the only way we'll ever succeed at some things. We have to accept failure.

If a toddler attempts to take steps and falls on his tush, the only reason he gets up again is because he failed to walk. If he sits on his padded little bottom and congratulates himself on his fine walking skills he's rather missed the point. If mommy and daddy clap and reward him for the fine walking he's done, then all the more damage is done.

The selective enrollment plan for Chicago public schools may have had some good intentions behind it, but the plan is a failure, plain and simple. Read this: Crain's How to Fix CPS

A few things to think about -

A full 15% of students who apply to selective enrollment high schools and do not get admitted leave the district for private or suburban schools. That's nearly 2000 students a year, assuming applications run consistent with about 13000 per year. That's nearly the entire student population at Whitney Young. I consider that a loss, not a win, especially since - let's be honest - it's not the poor families from Hermosa and Englewood who are packing up and taking children to private and middle schools. This distillation of students and parents from our city is disgusting and immoral.

Overall, Chicago Public Schools have not fared better since the advent of the SEHS system. Among the top 10 school districts by size, CPS ranks dead last in graduation rates. Worse, the graduation rate numbers are commonly understood by those who study these numbers as being inflated by the numbers from SEHSs alone. That means that among non-SEHS students, the graduation rate is even lower than bottom. Good for us? A win? No, friends. A failure.

CPS allows over $14000 per student per year as 'tuition', let's say. Are you getting $14000 worth of education for your child? Loyola Academy charges $15260 per year in tuition. So would you say your child's academic experience is within that variance in terms of resources, quality, rigor? It's interesting to hear what private schools have to say about this:
“Selective enrollment schools are free, and obviously we’re not. That’s what kills us,” she says. “Students increase their ACT scores by an average of four to six points during the four years they’re with us. If our schools were free, we’d be competing right alongside [CPS selective enrollment schools].” Jo Marie Yonkus, assistant superintendent for high schools for the Archdiocese of Chicago 2014 Guide to Chicago Private Schools, Chicago Magazine
Used to be you'd measure the parish school against the neighborhood public school. Now, the neighborhood school is not even on the radar. Good for us? A win? No. We are losing taxpaying families, our children are not graduating, and we're spending crazy money and not getting what others are getting for the same dollars. What says 'success' to you about that system?

We need to get honest here about what we're doing. And we also need to stop fooling ourselves about what will happen if we don't get honest. There's a 20/20 episode in this mess about how we all know this is a problem and we all keep talking about it in social media and blogs (erk) but we're not voting it down, we're not marching it down, and we are not fighting hard enough to bring it down. Societal suicide, in my opinion, really, and my kids and your kids will be left to it. Feel like a winner?

Whoever it was that convinced us that putting the 'smart' kids in one place and the 'less smart' kids in another was going to be good for either group was a real dumbass. Our entire city was built by people who did not go to selective enrollment high schools. The pyramids were built by people who did not go to selective enrollment high schools. The airplane you get on, the train you ride to work, the stoplight that keeps you from crashing into on-coming traffic, the food you eat, the laptop you're reading this on - friends, by and large not one graduate of a selective enrollment high school made any of those things. There are a ton of smart people in the world who have no idea selective enrollment high schools even exist.

We don't need them. They're a failure. Let's get off our tushes and do something about that, shall we?

Friday, January 15, 2016

It's All About the Dots

My high school Physics teacher was a stocky middle-aged Italian woman who I'm pretty sure was raised on a farm in Wisconsin. She had big hands, I mean Paul Bunyon-style big, and huge square glasses that magnified her face, except when they slipped from her nose which they did constantly, revealing thick, Coke-bottle lenses. For no reason at all, there was a slow garble in her voice, which always made her sound serious, even when she wasn't. She wore a traditional nun's habit and black coif with white headband; little wisps of fine dark hair would trail along the back of her neck and against the frame of her face. She wasn't quite pretty, not quite plain, but she did have the most unexpectedly lovely eyes - hazel with flecks of green - behind long, full lashes.

I absolutely loved this woman for her candor and no-nonsense approach to things, especially as I traversed through all the ups and downs of my high school years. I needed that.

I once came to her sniffling and whining about how an older girl had called me a name. She lifted my chin to look me in the eye and said, "Well, are you?" 

I just stared at her dumbly. That's what my grandmother used to say!

"You're not. So don't worry about it."

There was no space provided to keep crying after that, so I just stopped.

Sometimes she'd crack a joke out loud when she thought no one was in the room and I'd hear her from behind me laughing at her own humor. I always thought that was so funny.

I struggled a good bit in high school, first to lose my old self, and then to define and refine my new self. She was kind and understanding, though not much for the coddling. 

She gave me a "C" in her class even though we had become close and she knew I was having trouble outside of school. When I went to talk to her about it she told me I'd get the grade I earned in the class and that was final. I stood there for a moment prepared to negotiate and she just went back to what she was doing. So that was that.

When her mom visited the school she introduced me and I felt so important. 

I learned so many things from this teacher, about being true to myself and trusting my own truth, and being plain spoken, especially when you mean to say something. Some things stayed with me, some things never stuck, but always I have valued her contribution to my growing up. Through all my twists and turns, this teacher stayed with me, and then let me go when it was time.

I saw my old teacher today, in the hospital. She remembered me right away - after thirty years - and had no trouble recalling what a pain in the neck I was. (I totally wasn't. I was super awesome and easy, as I am now.) We chatted for a bit, recalling some of the teachers and students who were part of our shared history. She's still bright and bossy and smart, but she's old, and a little battle-weary. I held her hand for a good part of our time together, and it was warm and soft. I'm so very glad I got to see her. I gave her a kiss when I was leaving and told her I loved her. I most absolutely do.

In my high school yearbooks, her signature is marked in the first three years by her name and three dots. I begged her at the time to write more or to explain what she meant but she said she would provide only the three dots. In my senior year, she explained. The three dots mean "anything you wish".  I could be anything I wished, she had been telling me along.

I think I should send her this post and tell her she was right.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

For Mami, On The Occasion of Her 70th+1 Birthday

Because no one has taught me more about this than you.

How do you know you have faith? In anything? You can say you do. You can say you don't. But the truth is you have no way of proving it to yourself or anyone else, unless it's tested. And even then, having faith isn't something you can show to anyone anyway. You either have it or you don't and it either helps you or it doesn't. You only know it for sure yourself. More, your faith only serves others in your outward demonstration of its tenets, not in the truth of it. That belongs to you and your Creator.

So insisting someone have faith is rather wasted toil. You'll never know if you succeeded, and the object of your effort will never be able to satisfy you in truth, because only he will know if he is alive in faith.

I've come to terms with this idea as I have had my faith tested a few times over the past six months. All is well and, in part, that is what has me centered on this concept.

I have always considered myself a person strong in faith, but willing to and engaged in doubt. I don't trouble myself at all that I have questions or find some faith practices flimsy in their connection to the God I hold close. I happen to like bacon, I think my Muslim friends are moral and deserving of afterlife (if such exists), and many of my gay friends are more honorable in their marriages than their hetero counterparts. I deny them nothing. If I'm right, so be it and if I'm wrong, so be that too. If I were believing only to avoid damnation for my doubt, what truth would there be in that?

So I've come to terms, too, with the idea that my faith may not be wearing the garments some might right with approval. I'm not looking for approval. The truth, whether mine or theirs, will be whatever it is without account of our faulty measures.

Still, I surprised myself in each of these last few tests by the power of my connection, my absolute willingness and submission into the hands of the unknown. I found myself bemused, really, over the weakness of my doubts in the face of this overriding strength. Not what I would have forecast were it left to me to say.

I am glad for it, relieved and glad. I am not washed of doubt, but I have faith and that is enough. And although my faith may not cure every instance of injury or injustice, I lead with it nonetheless. I am compelled by it, in fact, even when I am certain of my futility.

In this way I am reminded of a question I asked a young girl once who told me she thought it was unimportant to vote. Her voice did not matter, she told me. I asked her, "If you were at a crowded intersection in New York, bustling with people, lights, and noise and you saw a young mother across the street, pushing a stroller into traffic, and you knew if she kept going her baby would get hit, and you knew it was impossible for her to see or hear you amidst the chaos of the intersection, would you scream and wave your hands from across the way, or would you stand mute and let her get hit?" "I'd scream, of course," she said. "Yes," I told her. "Go vote."

That is faith. In spite of it all, against all reason, and sure that you may not be able to make good, you are good, and you do believe that you can do good. You can and you can and you do believe, even in doubt. Your faith is what makes you strong and sure and keeps you even in your darkest moments. It is comprised of you, gifted to you, entirely for you. And it is there, even when you (and others) have no idea you have it. That is faith.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

We're Protecting the Wrong Thing

"When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."The U.S. Declaration of Independence begins with these words.I was having a conversation with Tony this morning about a piece on NPR which discussed the growing epidemic of heroin abuse in wealthy subsets of the population. It was an interesting piece, the elements of which included:- the culture of drug use as recreation, beginning with taking parents' prescription drugs just to try the high- the need for public awareness about this issue and the political will to address it with dollars and resources- the capacity for other drugs to block the effects of opiates, allowing users to withdraw more easilyAnd as I was talking to Tony about it, these words from the Declaration of Independence came back to me. Because what I said to him was that I didn't understand why we kept focusing on helping people deal with addictions once they had them, but we seem driven to intentionally ignore the number of people who become addicted in the first place. Doesn't anyone want to know why a wealthy kid from the suburbs with seemingly every advantage wants to get high? Doesn't anyone want to know why his mother has prescription drugs that help him get high, when she, too, would seem to have every ingredient for happiness at her disposal? Why aren't these people already happy?I think the answer is we have been protecting the wrong thing.The idea of America is a good one, and it is one worth protecting and serving. But the reality of America in the last half-century ~ more probably ~ is that we are no longer pursuing happiness and so we are no longer happy. That's why our politics are so angry and weird. That's why our public education system is perverse and our children are so frail in the face of simple (let alone complex) adversity. That's why we shoot one another and smirk at the President who sheds tears over the loss of small children. That's nuts, you know? Nuts.We've become convinced that our happiness is tied to possession and accumulation, hoarding of abundance is what my daughter calls it. We're so sure that more iproducts and more guns and more plastic crap from China will make us happy that we'll do anything - including letting our children be killed massacre-style, or allowing them to sink into sickness and depression, crawling behind needles and fevers. Our forefathers may have wanted to protect our freedoms, but right now we're focusing on the pursuit of freedom to tax and spend on crazy programs to treat drugs with drugs so we don't remain addicted to drugs, when the source of our unhappiness remains untended. That's dumb. I'll bet our forefathers would agree that was not what they fought and died for. Our society, our culture, and our government need to get busy figuring out why Americans are so damn miserable. And we need to be brave enough not just to deliver that message, we need to hear it and act upon it as our forefathers did so we can make good on the sacrifices that came before us.That's a declaration and a truth that needs to be heard.